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How you structure your core group and team of volunteers will affect how well you are able to work together and how effectively you engage citizens. Choosing the right legal structure will influence decision making processes and who can become involved in the project and how. Making use of different types of groups and ways of sharing, allocating and organising the work involved can support the smooth day-to-day running of the project, whilst enabling people to focus on the particular areas which match their skills and interests.

Click on the ideas below for practical suggestions and detailed case studies.

Legal structure

Your project will need a formal legal structure in order to access funding, sign legal documents and raise money. The structure chosen will affect decision making processes and whether money can be raised from the public, and therefore has implications for how and how much your community is able to become involved in your project. Points to consider include how you wish to raise money, what your preferred governance structure is and whether you want philanthropic values to be enshrined into your project.

Types of legal structure. The most common choices for social enterprises are between a company, a society or a charity. If your project will rely on capital grants, then any of these legal structures could be appropriate. However, if you intend to raise capital from the public through issuing shares, the best choice is likely to be a society. While a Community Interest Company can also raise share capital, there are restrictions on the returns it can give to investors, which may make it difficult to raise the money required, and it does not enjoy the same tax breaks as societies and charities.

There are two forms of society – a Community Benefit Society and a Co-operative Society. Both forms must comply with the cooperative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. The principles of voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, and concern for community must all be enshrined into the constitution of the organisation, with members able to contribute to governance and decision making.

A lot of time can be spent agonising over the choice of legal structure – time which might be better spent on the project itself, in some cases! You may come across passionate advocates of one form of society or another, but in practice there is often little difference between them in terms of their everyday management and ability to raise share capital. In theory Community Benefit Societies are ‘for the benefit of the community’, whereas Co-operative Societies are ‘for the benefit of their members’. In practice both have a social mission and the boundaries between ‘community’ and ‘members’ can be blurred. A brief summary of some of the issues can be found in the Community-Led Wind Power action pack.

There is lots of information available on the various options and their registration processes and requirements. Useful sources of information include the Government website GOV.UK (e.g. see the guidance on 'Setting up a social enterprise') and resources from Co-operatives UK. It can also be worthwhile seeking professional advice to ensure you choose a structure which will suit the current and future needs of your project.

Case Studies
Country: UK

Low Carbon West Oxford decided to become constituted as a formal organisation in order to maintain and build the community’s trust, seeing this as an important way to enable greater community participation. They considered various governance options, including becoming a charity, a society or a Community Interest Company. They eventually decided to set up two separate organisations: Low Carbon West Oxford (LCWO) and West Oxford Community Renewables (WOCoRe). LCWO is a registered charity that runs carbon reduction and behaviour change projects, while WOCoRe is a Community Benefit Society which produces renewable energy. Although this adds an extra administrative burden, it allows WOCoRe to offer anyone in the world a chance to invest in its renewable energy projects, whereas LCWO focuses on working specifically with and for the benefit of West Oxford, offering free and open membership to anyone living there. WOCoRe membership is available to anyone who buys its shares, which are set very low with the minimum block costing just £10, to allow a broad range of people to invest in the community.

Source: Low Carbon West Oxford and West Oxford Community Renewables (2010), Low Carbon Living: Power to make it possible

Country: Ireland

Cloughjordan Ecovillage was conceived as a model for future development, an educational project dedicated to environmental protection and to sharing the fruits of the community’s experience. Future residents of the village established a not-for-profit company to realise the project in 1999: Sustainable Projects Ireland Ltd (SPIL). SPIL operates as a co-operative but with the legal structure of a charity, a foundation for the public good. Membership of SPIL was initially limited to  residents intending to live and build in the village but has naturally evolved to include other local residents. The Membership Agreement defines members’ rights and obligations. Members also subscribe to an ecological charter which sets out guidelines for the design of the development and which will continue to affect all future operations. A board of directors and an advisory panel were appointed consisting of people with a range of skills required to establish the project including an engineer, an architect, an accountant, a solicitor, a quantity surveyor and the then leader of the Irish Green Party.

Country: France

The regional association for the development of solidarity economy (ARDES) initiated a project to deliver community funded solar panels on schools, with funding to be secured collectively by citizens and public authorities. In order to inform citizens and communicate about the project, but also to optimise the integration of citizens in the project, an association, Plaine Sud Energies, which then became a cooperative, was created. As the awareness raising first started amongst representatives, they were the first ones to join the association, but other people from the community also joined. It enabled the constitution of a core group who would be the key driving force for the project.

Country: UK

The Big Lemon, a sustainable community bus service in Brighton, is a Community Interest Company (CIC) limited by shares.  This means it can sell shares in the company in order to raise finance, but there are legal limits on dividend payments to ensure that profits are used for social objectives that benefit the community. The Big Lemon chose this model in order to safeguard its aims in law and to make it immediately recognisable as a social enterprise, whilst allowing it to raise finance from the community by selling shares. Incorporation as a CIC is subject to agreement by the CIC Regulator and must be renewed each year by means of an annual CIC Report. If the CIC Regulator is no longer satisfied that the company is working for the benefit of the community, it can withdraw its CIC status.  The Big Lemon sees these features as a way of ensuring the community have confidence that the project is being run in accordance with its mandate, true to its original vision, mission and values, with members of the community being able to participate in the ownership and running of the organisation.

Source: Community-Led Transport Initiatives action pack

Types of groups

Most small projects are likely to work perfectly well with one core group managing the work between themselves. Larger projects which encompass a range of different objectives and project types may benefit from splitting up their workload into separate sub-groups. This can help to engage and recruit citizens who are interested in a certain aspect of your group’s work, rather than being part of a larger team that deals with everything from finance and planning to community engagement and delivery on the ground.

Temporary initial group. When you are first establishing your project, it can be worth setting out with the intention for the initial core group to be temporary. For example, The Transition Handbook recommends that new Transition initiatives start by setting a defined lifespan for the functioning of the initial “Steering Group”. The initial group nurture the initiative as it raises awareness, lays the foundations, unleashes the project and establishes a minimum of four sub-groups to take forward different aspects.  The initial “Steering Group” is then reconstituted to encompass representation from across the newly formed sub-groups. Ensuring a fresh mix of people can encourage a flow of new and different ideas, helping to avoid your project becoming stale and missing new opportunities.

Sub-groups, working groups or committees. Sub-groups could be split up according to, for example, different types of renewable energy technologies or different themes of sustainability, such as energy, food, waste and transport. Alternatively, sub-groups could relate to particular ongoing tasks relating to the overall project, such as events and marketing or another category outlined in the roles and responsibilities suggestions.

Co-ordinating committee. A co-ordinating committee can provide a means for facilitating communication between and coordination of different sub-groups. A co-ordinating committee should be made up of representatives from each working group who meet on a regular basis to feedback on progress, activities being undertaken and future plans. Such a co-ordinating committee could also be the core or executive group who have responsibility for decisions relating to the overall organisation.

Executive and non-executive members.  Structuring your group to have both executive and non-executive members can bring a range of benefits. See the roles and responsibilities suggestions for details.

Case Studies
Country: UK

Stroud Community Agriculture have a range of sub-groups in addition to their core group, which allows their members to get involved in a variety of ways. A communications sub-group set up a quarterly newsletter to keep people up-to-date with plans and to publicise their social events. A children’s sub-group organises children’s activities during farm days to free up parents to get involved on the farm. They also have a festivals sub-group, who plan and set up celebrations, parties and events around the farm, and an education sub-group, who meet to learn more about the farm and its vegetables, animals, landscape and environment.

Source: The Story of Community Supported Agriculture in Stroud

Country: Ireland

Cloughjordan Ecovillage brings together a diverse group of people to create an innovative new community in Tipperary. They aim to do this in a way that is democratic, healthy and socially enriching, while minimising ecological impacts. The Village is a company limited by guarantee, but with articles of association ensuring that the group operates in much the same way as a co-operative. Early on, members adopted the idea of shared purposes and principles: shared out responsibilities. Since then members have adopted a revolutionary organisational system which gives maximum autonomy to all participants. Project management is highly participative and most of the work is done by volunteers, working in Primary Activity and Support Groups, based on the Viable Systems Model. This form of group structure represents a shift towards a new paradigm of self-organising adaptive systems instead of command-and-control ways of organising.

Roles and responsibilities

Creating group roles and volunteering opportunities for people with different interests and who can offer different skills and levels of commitment can allow you to engage a wider cross section of the community. While roles within the core group are likely to require a regular commitment, volunteers can support the work of the core group on a one-off, ad-hoc or regular basis, either focusing on a particular role or aspect of the project or mucking in where help is needed. You could even develop apprenticeship or internship placements.

Types of roles and responsibilities to consider include:

Events. Organising and running events, involving coming up with ideas for events, arranging venues, times, invitations and logistics for the day, and feeding into marketing and promotional material.

Marketing and communications. Writing, designing and updating content relating to online, paper, face-to-face and media communication channels. Someone with web design skills, graphic design skills or other skills relating to marketing and PR would be well-suited to such a role.

Secretary and administrator. Handling email, telephone and postal correspondence, as well as writing and distributing agendas and minute-taking at meetings.

Finance. Grant applications, fundraising activities, developing a financial model and managing accounts, share offers, sales and membership fees.

Delivery and outreach. Community engagement, recruiting people to participate in projects and delivering services for people in the community as part of your group’s projects.

Member recruitment. Developing and delivering a strategy or approach for recruiting new members, as well as managing existing membership lists.

Volunteer co-ordinator. Recruiting new volunteers, developing new volunteer roles, producing role profiles and person specifications for different volunteering opportunities, communicating with volunteers and arranging and managing volunteers.

Development and project manager. Oversight for the project and involve responsibility for technical aspects, such as site negotiations, feasibility studies, planning applications and installation.

Executive and non-executive members.  Executive directors usually sit on the board of directors and have a specific position, holding responsibility for the day-to-day running of the project in that area. Non-executive directors also sit on the board of directors and take part in decision making at board meetings, but do not play any part in operations or the running of the project. Non-executive directors perform an advisory role and are usually appointed due to their experience and areas of expertise. Having access to the advice of non-executive directors can bring a range of benefits: ensuring good governance and holding the executive to account; the constructive assessment and objective insight that comes with having distance from the project and detachment from operational issues; transferring and applying of lessons learned from their own experience and expertise; access to new networks and useful contacts.

Case Studies
Country: UK

Ashton Hayes has a band of 30-50 dedicated volunteers who regularly help with different aspects of their project. They try to harness the variety of skills available in their community and encourage everyone to participate by offering a wide range of opportunities to become involved, tailored to different people’s strengths and the needs of the project. They recognise that some people enjoy the technical aspects of carbon footprint calculations, while others have specialist knowledge and expertise relating to renewable energy. Others are more creative, and contribute by providing writing, photographic and film making skills which help to keep all residents informed of the group’s activities and share their journey with the outside world.

Country: UK

Bath and West Community Energy is keen to ensure that their board of directors is as diverse as possible to be able to draw on a broad cross section of skills and experience. Their Executive Directors include a Chair, Managing Director and Finance Director, and their Executive Team comprises an Associate Director of Communications, Community and Press, an Associate Director of Development and a Project Developer. Their Non-Executive Directors play an important role in holding the executive to account and representing members’ interests. When recruiting for Non-Executive Directors, they look for individuals with experience of running a business, financial and legal skills, links with the community or life experience that can help assess risks and make rational decisions.

Country: Ireland

The Energy Smart Community was a not-for-profit scheme run by Dublin’s energy agency Codema in partnership with Iona and District Resident's Association. The scheme allowed homeowners to join together with their local community to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, while availing of energy saving grants from the government. It operated on the simple principle that by bringing homeowners together as a ‘cluster’, they could save on their overall energy bills, while taking advantage of the environmental and social benefits for the community involved. The roles of the different partners in the project were very defined. While the Resident’s Association assisted with the development of local contacts, Codema looked after all the PR and marketing in relation to the project. The Resident’s Association then helped with the distribution of the marketing material to help involve the community and get residents to attend local information evenings. This was done through press releases, local newspaper/website articles, posters and leaflets which were developed by Codema’s Communications Manager. Both Codema and the Resident’s Association devised a ‘door-knock’ strategy to call to approx. 1,000 homes in the area to advertise the scheme. Codema’s Energy Engineer provided all the energy advice at information evenings and Codema’s Finance Officer looked after tendering and procurement. Codema also worked with an outside consultant who was responsible for project administration and giving the main presentation at local meetings.